The God-Haunted World of ‘Chinatown’: A look back at the neo-noir classic on its 50th anniversary. (Hannah Long, June 22, 2024, The Dispatch)

Whereas the god of Genesis pronounces creation good in its inception, reflecting himself, Chinatown reverses this. Every authority is fundamentally compromised or selfish. Women are liars; men are boors; fathers abuse their daughters; the police lack honor; there is no appeal to heaven. Even the act of life-giving is poisoned by power.

The makers of Chinatown were not unique in their cynicism. In the 1960s and ‘70s, screenwriters were bent on subverting the studio system rules and tropes established by the last generation. But like every rebellious teen, those anti-mythmakers fit into their own tradition. There are as many films portraying the seedy underbelly of Hollywood as there are lauding its glittering promise. From Norman Maine in A Star is Born walking into the ocean to Norma Desmond madly gyrating into the camera in Sunset Boulevard, disillusion and impotence are deep parts of the California myth. While Chinatown distills the trope with such clarity and feeling that it has become the platonic anti-ideal, it doesn’t create a new thing.

In fact, chucking the Christian myth actually means restoring a far more conservative vision, the “restoration of order”—but an ancient order. In Chinatown, time is cyclical, choice is an illusion, gods are ruled by their appetites, and the world will go on thus forever. It’s not the world of Yahweh, but the world of Zeus.

And yet, despair is the tribute that unbelief pays to faith. Chinatown wouldn’t be half as sad, or remotely as great—and it is very great—were it not a film that expected a good city and a righteous builder.